Billy Childs Engages The Vastness Of Music

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Billy Childs’ work with the Dorian Wind Quintet served as a turning point in his writing.

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The two movements come in contrasting moods, colors and tempi, all exquisitely executed by the ensemble on the 1999 release First Glimpses Of Sunlight. Childs, though, really had been exploring the ideas that his experience with Dorian foregrounded on earlier albums issued through the Windham Hill Jazz imprint.

His April Touch, a 1991 disc, included some smoothly rendered features from reedist Bob Sheppard, an L.A. mainstay, while a few years later, in 1993, Portrait Of A Player set Childs in a stately piano trio, where it wasn’t uncommon for his keys to find spotlit moments as his ensemble-mates lay out. But it wasn’t solo piano music and it wasn’t solely flights of jazz acumen that propelled the latter album. It was the compendium of ideas that Childs had been dealing with since his time as a young musician working with bandleaders, divergent in both temperament and intent.

“I started to look at the jazz ensemble as a kind of chamber ensemble, where piano, bass, drums and saxophone function kind of in the same spirit as a string quartet might—where everything’s interdependent,” Childs explained. “There’s heavy counterpoint. There was a lot of through-composed music. But I always felt as though I wanted to incorporate composition with my jazz, even when I was playing with Freddie Hubbard—even when I was playing with J.J. Johnson, when I was 20 and 21. I was studying composition and I wanted to figure out a way to fuse that with jazz, much in the same way as the prog-rock people infused classical composition with rock.”

Childs’ enthusiasm for a borderless concept of music has made him not only a tirelessly creative composer, performer and collaborator, but also ideally suited to serve as president of the board of directors for Chamber Music America, an organization that aims to bolster small ensembles working in a variety of genres with grants and other professional development opportunities. He’s held that post—a first for a “jazz musician”—since 2016.

“Billy brings a bunch of things to the organization,” said Richard Kessler, who serves as CMA board chairperson, as well as working at The New School in New York City as the executive dean for the College of Performing Arts and dean of Mannes School of Music. “The breadth [of his work] is really impressive. He has a real love for music and particularly small ensembles—and it is jazz and it is rock ’n’ roll. Look at his [Map To The Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro]. You can talk to him about prog-rock. He’s happy to talk with you about [Yes keyboardist] Rick Wakeman. So, what you get there is someone who’s not a snob. You get someone who’s not seeking to protect a slice of the musical pie, because he loves and respects—and has been influenced by—so many different styles and forms. That works particularly well for the organization.”

Acceptance vividly illustrates Childs’ ability to take in just about every kind of music that he’s encountered, and assimilate the bits and pieces he finds most interesting into his own compositions.

Opening the album is the composer’s ode to his friend and collaborator Dori Caymmi, simply titled “Dori.” It might not instantly recall one of the Brazilian singer-songwriter’s works—Caymmi remarked to Childs that the tempo was a bit fast—but the song insinuates rhythms particular to the South American country into a contemporary jazz context that enables Childs to slot in brisk improvisations.

Initially performed in 2016 at Michigan State University, “Do You Know My Name?,” the album’s third track, explores human trafficking, an unrelentingly grim topic that’s filtered through the vocal performance of Alicia Olatuja. As devastating as the narrative is, Olatuja’s dynamic turns—and almost supernatural flourish on the chorus—take the somber piano motif and drill down with pathos.

“When you’re telling a story, you do take the time to really pull it in and make it an authentic experience for yourself, before you can expect to make it an authentic experience for your audience,” Olatuja said recently from home in New York, while discussing her preparation. “But as far as trafficking of human beings, this is something that was experienced by my ancestors. It also tapped into that level of generational trauma that I can understand. At the time [of the original performance], interestingly enough, it was right around a particular family reunion. And we’re putting together stories of our ancestors and just tracing it back several generations. Every single story of my ancestors was horrible: She was taken from here and then her kids were taken to a different state. And then she was killed by this particular slave master, because she was trying to care for a crying baby. It was all these really painful stories that I was reading about my ancestors, you know? We’re in that same situation, but amplified. So, it’s something that isn’t new, unfortunately. And that really impacted my unique perspective of the subject matter.”

Olatuja’s appearance on Acceptance ranks as her second recorded contribution to a project Childs has helmed, Rebirth being their first in-studio collaboration. The composer—who said if he could sing, he would—frequently enlists vocalists for his projects, and Olatuja seemed to find their partnership to be one of profound understanding.

“You can hear the jazz influences, you can hear the classical study, you can hear the understanding of the voice, which is so important when you’re working with a composer,” she said. “I think he understands my history, I think he understands the different genres and vocabulary. ... So, the songs that he has written for me, specifically, where he’s heard my voice over a particular piece of music, it’s always just a perfect fit.”

On “Oceana,” a wholly improvised work conjured in the studio that concludes Acceptance, Childs opens quietly as Wilson wends around his chords and Glawischnig trickles in. Harland, somehow funky in such a hushed environment, colors the tune without hitting on a regular statement of purpose. It’s an ephemeral five minutes, capping an album that otherwise relies on Childs’ exacting writing and arrangements.

“I just started playing this thing on the piano and then everybody joined in. It was almost like a Rube Goldberg machine: One thing affects the other, affects the other,” the bandleader said about that impromptu moment. “Steve started doing these elongated notes, which reminded me of the ocean. In my mind, that’s what we were thinking of when we were going through this journey. It started making me do piano figures that might have swam by you—or you would have encountered if you were diving.”

The fecundity of Childs’ inventiveness—seeing colors and vignettes where others might just hear notes, progressions and musical themes—hasn’t been impacted by the pandemic, though not being able to impart his “vision to the world” is a bummer. But the same creative spirit that’s propelled him from the bands of bop giants as a twentysomething sideplayer to a composer renowned throughout concert halls and across jazz festival stages remains unhampered.

“It never stops until you stop,” he said, “your desire—the hunger to accomplish something else.” DB

This story originally was published in the September 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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